Mt. LeConte via Surry Fork June 16, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Grotto Falls, Roaring Fork, Surry Fork, Trillium Gap trail
This was a solo bushwhack that I undertook for several reasons. One of them was that I wanted to find out why Surry Fork has been so neglected among the streams that tumble down the slopes of LeConte. Perhaps it is upstaged by its neighbor, Roaring Fork, which is a larger stream with bigger waterfalls—I suppose you could say Roaring Fork is more deluxe than Surry.
Another reason for its neglect is no doubt the unfortunate circumstance that Surry Fork is crossed by the Trillium Gap trail a total of four times. To be more exact, the upper valley loses its perennial stream water by the time you get to the third trail crossing, but you still go across the trail as you follow that basic route.
So perhaps that is the reason the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club never goes up it and you never hear talk of Surry Fork among the usual off-trail hard-cores.
The 1931 map shows an old trail that goes up Surry Fork to Trillium Gap. Surry joins Roaring Fork above what is now the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and that is where you would be most likely to pick up the old trail. It’s maybe even an old road in that section that led up to former homesites.
I thought about starting from the lowest point, but I rejected that in favor of going up Trillium Gap trail past Grotto Falls and hitting Surry at the lowest trail crossing, around 4400′. Why, that’s halfway up the mountain, and you might consider that cheating. But I did it anyway. I also cheated a tiny bit at the top, as I will explain.
So I set off along the trail to Grotto Falls. For some reason on this trip I really noticed the bizarre patterns of exposed roots on the trail.
I arrived at Grotto Falls. Here is my favorite perspective on the falls.
Then I trundled along to the first crossing of Surry Fork. It looked extraordinarily green. The photo below has no enhancement of color. In fact, I turned the brightness down a bit.
Before long I reached a junction of two branches of Surry Fork. Only the left is shown on the map as a perennial stream, but to me they looked about equal in volume of water flow. Both had cascades flowing down over a band of sandstone that extended pretty far in both directions at that elevation.
I noticed that the rock is pockmarked with holes. I have noticed this in a few other places, such as Kuwahi Branch up near Clingmans Dome summit. I don’t know what the geological explanation is.
I went over toward the left cascade, but the vegetation was incredibly dense and I needed to find a route up the cascade bluff. So this photo was taken from a distance. Sorry it is blurry.
I crawled through a lot of rhodo getting up past this general elevation. I saw one—just one—blossom here as if the plant was making a conciliatory gesture. (I saw a lot more rhodo in bloom along roads and other places where you aren’t wrestling with it. Funny thing about that.)
Unfortunately, I got into a zone of intensive balsam blowdown, from the trees that were killed from the balsam woolly adelgid in the late 80s and early 90s.
It was at this point that I cheated again. Thing was, I was ridiculously close to the trail—and this is really the problem with Surry Fork. As I clambered over one blowdown after another, I couldn’t forget the trail was literally only yards away from my route, located on the west side of the ridge that led up to the Lodge.
I threw in the towel and dropped down to the trail at about 6000′, climbed up to the Lodge, and then went on to Cliff Top because I wanted to see the myrtle in bloom.
I had hardly seen anyone all day (no big surprise there), but two young couples came up while I was sitting at Cliff Top. They asked me if I’d come up the Alum Cave trail. I was seized with a strange fit of awkwardness. I said I’d gone up past Grotto Falls and climbed up a stream, and I knew I couldn’t possibly explain it. They saw my dirty clothes, the fact that I was wearing long sleeves and long pants, dirty gaiters.
For some reason instead of seeing myself as a glorious explorer I could only see myself as kind of a weirdo, at least in their eyes. I had the same feeling when I got back down to Grotto Falls and ran into tons of tourists on the trail. It was uniformly family groups wearing t-shirts and shorts, and here I was, a solitary female who looked dirty and dressed differently than everyone else. I should have felt superior, I guess. Instead I only felt odd. Sorry for the deep psychological digression.
While I was up on Cliff Top, I saw a Rhodo minus in bud. It’s one of my favorite plants.
And then I had to face up to the long trip down Trillium Gap trail. One nice thing happened—I saw a very tame deer near the Lodge!
Scouting Lower Richland June 13, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: CCC camp, Kephart Prong, Oconoluftee River, Richland Mountain, Smith Branch, Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, Will Branch
Yesterday Cindy McJunkin and I scouted a hike we will lead September 21 for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. It connects three unmaintained manways to make an interesting journey in the Richland Mountain area.
The hike starts at the Kephart Prong trailhead but soon leaves the trail in the vicinity of the old CCC camp to climb the Smith Branch manway to the crest of Richland. It then goes south along the ridgeline until the Smokemont Loop trail hits the ridge. Just a few feet away from that point, the hike turns west to descend via the Will Branch manway. Near the bottom of Will Branch, we visit an old cemetery and cross the Oconoluftee on an obscure footbridge that has no maintained trail access. We end at a shuttled car parked on a grassy shoulder not far from the Collins Creek picnic area.
It was my old friend Al Watson who cooked up the idea for this hike and suggested it to the SMHC Program Committee. Al has been on these manways—he’s been on just about every manway in the Park—and he kindly offered to show me where the Smith and Will manways begin. It was a good thing he did, because the start points of these routes are not obvious.
I met with Al and Evelyn last month. We drove to the hard-to-find spot where the path to the footbridge starts, crossed the bridge, walked to the lower end of Will Branch and visited the cemetery. Then we drove up to Kephart Prong and located the Smith Branch start point. You head off into the woods just past this old artifact of the CCC camp.
Cindy and I deposited my car at the footbridge path and drove in her car to Kephart. Soon we turned into the woods and looked for the manway. It is not visible near the trail; you have to go on faith for a bit before the old grade shows up. We found it near a hog trap and started following it as the trail switchbacks up the mountain on a classic gentle CCC grade.
Although we encountered many minor obstructions such as blowdowns and brush, we had no trouble following it up to around 4000′. There we lost it but found a faint path with branches along it that showed old pruning cuts. Eventually that faded out and we proceeded up the stream itself, which has shallow water flowing over a flat bottom covered with small stones—rather unusual, but it made for easy walking. We reached the point where the stream issued forth from a large spring and refilled our water bottles there, for it was a warm muggy day and the Richland crest would be dry.
We climbed through steep open woods and hit the gap between Points 4891 and 4768, exactly where we wanted to be.
I’d worried that the Richland crest might be overgrown with dense laurel and rhodo, but we were pleasantly surprised to find it relatively open. The major problem was greenbrier. Most of the time we followed a faint path. It is impossible to tell whether this is actually the remains of the old trail or just the tracks left by people and/or bears in more recent years.
We came to the only halfway decent viewpoint we encountered along the ridge and stopped there for lunch.
As we went along, I said to Cindy, “The ridge forks, and we’ll have to be careful to bear left at that point.” In fact, the ridge forks twice, and in both spots one bears to the southeast rather than the southwest. Well, guess what happened? At the second fork, below Point 3975, we went the wrong way.
I checked my compass and saw that we were going southwest. I’d been so certain we were continuing along the leftmost (east) side of the ridge that I hadn’t checked it soon enough. By that time, we had already descended far enough along the wrong ridge that we were reluctant to climb back up and hunt around for the other fork. We looked at the map and saw that we could drop into Shell Bark Branch and arrive at the river not far above the footbridge and the cemetery, which are located about halfway between Shell Bark and Will.
We descended through open woods and found an old road running next to the stream. There were pretty cascades along the stream, and the way seemed so pleasant that I said, “This route might be better than Will Branch.” It all worked out great—until we got close to the river.
We crossed an old road that I thought might be the Will Thomas Turnpike, which parallels the Oconoluftee, but at that point we were still a good distance above the river. Not being sure where the road went, we decided it would be safest to keep going down to the river. I’m now pretty sure the road was in fact the old turnpike, located above the section of small ravines and dense brush that we soon found ourselves struggling through. I believe the turnpike angles down along a broad ridge before re-approaching the river near the footbridge location.
That last bit was tough going. We eventually arrived at the river and worked right along the edge of it, with the rain-swollen waters foaming next to our feet, because the vegetation was so dense. Things gradually eased up, and I spotted a welcome sight—the footbridge.
We walked the short distance to the old cemetery, which is the reason the footbridge exists. When I visited the site with Al and Evelyn last month, it was near Mother’s Day and someone had placed a new flower on the joined graves of Reverend Conner and his wife.
I plan to go back and hike up Will Branch and the bottom section of Richland to Point 3975, then retrace my steps past the tricky fork that fooled us on this trip. But despite the error, it was a fine outing.
Mouse Creek revisited May 28, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Mouse Creek, Mt. Sterling, Smoky Mountains Hiking Club
1 comment so far
Last fall I scouted this hike with Mark Shipley and Ed Fleming. It was to be an outing for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. It is a strenuous hike, going off-trail from the lower waterfall that can be seen from the Big Creek trail and rockhopping up Mouse Creek, a climb of 4000′ vertical feet to get to the Mt. Sterling fire tower. Think of the Baxter Creek trail and then consider how much harder it is to do the same climb without benefit of a trail.
Mark and Ed decided to limit the number of people who could go. It is part of an SMHC initiative to avoid the environmental impact of a large number of people trampling through the forest. I will say, however, that I believe trail hikers have a much greater impact on the forest than the small numbers of scattered off-trail hikers venturing into places few people go. The way I think about it, the forest is so robust that the hikers are the ones on the defensive, not the woods! If you have ever waded through waist-deep doghobble or wormed your way through a rhododendron thicket, you might understand what I mean.
However, I respect the decision of the leaders and value the intention behind it.
At any rate, I decided not to join the club hike because I’d been there on the scouting trip and didn’t want to deprive anyone who hadn’t been there before from taking one of the six slots available.
Of course, after I made that decision I had pangs of disappointment. I realized that I truly didn’t want to miss out on the experience. So I came up with a plan. I would go ahead of the group and meet them at the upper Mouse Creek falls. I kept my plan secret.
I arrived an hour and a quarter before the group meeting time and parked at the ranger station a mile away because I knew people would recognize my car. I was so determined to stay ahead of the group that by the time I reached the falls I had expanded my lead time to an hour and a half. As it turned out, that was a mistake, because I burned myself out and ran out of steam on the upper section.
The falls is at 3560′, or only halfway to the top. We continued along an old logging grade for a while, but where the vegetation got thick, we returned to the stream itself. I dragged more and more behind the group, embarrassed to make such a poor showing for myself.
We reached the tower and experienced beautiful views from the top on this crystal-clear day. We all had different schedules so split up into different groups for the return down the Baxter Creek trail. I walked down with Cindy McJunkin, enjoying our conversation about the plants we encountered and many other subjects. Despite the odd difficulties I experienced, I’m glad I decided to join the group.